The National Rifle Association (the NRA) began as an inspired solution to a familiar and difficult question: How can a war veteran use his experiences to benefit a post-war society?
The two vets of the Civil War, George W. Wingate had fought his way from private to sergeant on a battlefield near Gettysburg, while William Conant Church had covered the war for The New York Times, shared a great concern and wanted to do something about it. They had seen that too many Union soldiers in the war had little skill with their firearms, and far too many of them had died as a result.
Well, what if there were an organization that encouraged people to get familiar with firearms and taught them how to use them safely and effectively? Might that mean, if there were a next war, the U.S. Army would fight more successfully?
Six years after the Civil War ended, in 1871, Wingate – by then a successful New York lawyer – and Church, still a working journalist – launched the National Rifle Association, to end the era of the U.S. Army as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
From the beginning, the NRA had political connections, through the NY National Guard, to the New York State Republican Party, which helped immensely in getting infusions of taxpayers’ money into some NRA programs and competitions.
For a century, the NRA benefited from its political connections, but the organization’s own political beliefs were kept simple and non-partisan: the more America is comfortable with firearms, the more Americans are capable with firearms, the better – for our military and for our country. As for arms regulation, for its first 100 years the NRA organizational stance was resistant, but willing to compromise.
This flexibility coexisted with another alliance that goes back to the NRA’s founding years, with the makers of firearms. The small arms industry added another implicit annex to the old NRA credo: the more Americans bought firearms, the better.
The NRA’s mutually beneficial relationship with arms makers has stayed strong and steady, but the old largely nonpolitical, perfectly nonpartisan orientation of the NRA flipped after a kind of palace coup in 1977.
Within years, the new leadership of the NRA had a reputation as the toughest political infighters in Washington and had begun helping or outright endorsing Republicans. But more important, the new crowd had turned the old NRA’s “can we negotiate” position on gun legislation into an absolute “zero tolerance” for any kind of regulation.
How the NRA went from the sporting and teaching society of Wingate and Church to the universal huckster of gun sales and the most powerful resister of gun law is the subject of an excellent new book The NRA: An Un-Authorized History by an old friend of mine and colleague at the Committee to Protect Journalists, Frank Smyth.
Here’s what a distinguished journalist and past guest on this program Mark Bowden had to say about The NRA: “This is the book for anyone who has ever wondered why the United States is incapable of even minor regulation of firearms, despite alarming levels of gun violence and consistent, broad public support for it. Frank Smyth has delivered a clearly-written, diligently-researched, and level-headed answer.
Frank Smyth is an independent, award-winning investigative journalist specializing in armed conflicts, organized crime and human rights overseas, and on the gun movement and its influence at home. He is a former arms trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch breaking the role of France in arming Rwanda before its genocide. Smyth is a global authority on journalist security and press freedom having testified to Congress and member states of several multilateral organizations.